At 27, Linda Jiang has already achieved a career highlight that others might spend their entire lives dreaming about: She designed a new phone that actually made it to market, and earned its fair share of industry hype in the process, with reviews that put it up against the giants in the business — Apple and Samsung.
Jiang is the Head of Industrial Design at Essential Products. These days, it's hard for any phone — let alone one from a no-name company — to earn industry attention when it's shipped in the same quarter as the new Samsung Galaxy Note 8 and Apple's iPhone 8 and 8 Plus. But that's what Essential did with its first flagship product, the Essential Phone (also known as PH-1) and its magnetic, 360 degree camera attachment. Jiang led the design for both.
When I meet Jiang in person, she's dressed in a tight-fitting grey ribbed top, high waisted burgundy pants, and Stan Smith Adidas sneakers. Her highlighted black hair frames her face. She has a gold nose ring, and wears wide, round glasses with lenses connected by a coil. She sits on the edge of her seat, with the palpable energy of someone who is rarely sitting still for long.
Jiang is well aware of the fact that she defies most people's presumptions about who designs tech hardware. "I think [people] expect me to be a man," she says. Her image, she goes on to point out, is a far cry from the tech industry's most prominent designer — Apple's Jony Ive. Ive voices most Apple product videos, with a regal British accent well known enough to have been spoofed by everyone from Stephen Colbert to Sacha Baron Cohen.
Among the members of the Industrial Designers Society of America who have identified their gender, less than a third are female. Aside from numbers, that's been Jiang's personal experience as well: Ever since the Michigan native enrolled in industrial design classes at Detroit's College for Creative Studies, she's found herself to be one of just a few women in her cohort — a narrative most women in tech are familiar with.
Still, it was a woman in her division at Motorola, where Jiang earned an internship after college, who helped her learn the ropes. "She was like, 'I'm going to help you through this. I'm going to tell you the tricks of how to work with these guys," Jiang says, referencing the predominantly male environment. "[Before,] there were times where I wanted to cry after a meeting because I felt like nothing I said ever got through."
After Motorola, Jiang joined Playground. The Palo Alto startup incubator was founded by Andy Rubin, who created the original T-Mobile Sidekick and then Android, the latter of which was bought by Google in 2004. Essential Products came out of that incubator, and because Jiang was part of Playground, she got involved early on. She was one of the first three employees, including Rubin, of what is now an over 100 person staff.
"When I joined, Andy said, 'Design me something beautiful that you would want to carry,'" Jiang says. "I thought, how do I design this in a way where the tech feels sophisticated?"
Jiang wanted to design a phone that looked "very modern, clean and really refined," something she believes Apple has achieved, but many Android products have not. "A lot of times in the Android market [phones] end up looking very playful and fun, compared to what Apple is doing which is very premium, very high end."
The result of her year and a half of designing is the Essential Phone, a $699 (£525) sleek, rectilinear phone with rounded edges, an edge-to-edge glass display, titanium body, and ceramic back. As with recent iPhones, there's no headphone jack, but there is a fingerprint sensor on the back (a feature Apple is ditching with iPhone X). One of the stand out design features on Essential Phone is what's missing: A logo or branding of any sort.
"Companies tend to put logos on the back so that when you’re holdng your phone and talking on it, you’re a walking advertisement — we didn’t want to do that," Jiang says. This thinking lines up with who she and the Essential team see the phone targeting: "People that are sick of being at the whim of Samsung and Apple and want to try something new."
Still, $699 is a lot of money to spend on the first smartphone from a new company, regardless of its founder's origins. Apple and Samsung have cultivated a fanbase over the last decade. While the Essential Phone has received largely positive reviews, its camera, one of the most important parts of any new smartphone, has been a point of criticism across the board from publications that reviewed it.
The PH-1's camera is a bit disappointing: The colours are much darker in most shots, and the picture quality is grainier than photos taken with the iPhone 8 Plus. For all its hype, much of which was fuelled by a striking image of the phone the company posted to Twitter, there are reports that the Essential Phone has seen disappointing sales since being announced in May. The phone will be hitting Sprint stores in September.
Still, Jiang is undeterred by the uphill battle of entering the smartphone ring with the big shots: "This is not an industry you can be standstill and comfortable — there’s always a new tech company, and you're constantly chasing after the giants. You really have to be on your feet, which is really exhilarating. I have all the energy to do that right now so I’m going to keep on doing it for awhile."
She doesn't have plans to leave Essential anytime soon: She revels in the freedom of making phones at a company without much design history from past phones and accessories. She can call the shots. It's too soon to say how the company will perform in the long run, but Jiang has hopes that she can continue to innovate and make an impact in the mobile space with her team. For her career goals, that's essential.